Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish
by Richard Flanagan
All the Pretty Fishes
A review by Taylor Antrim
Don't be fooled by the pretty fish paintings in Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan's newest and most impressively imagined novel, Gould's Book of Fish. There's plenty of stink and death and rot here, too.
Most of the story takes place on Sarah Island, a nineteenth-century Tasmanian penal colony for the worst of the worst, a squalor of torture and bedlam. Our cracked narrator is convict-artist William Gould, jailed in a sandstone cell cut into the cliffs below the high water mark of the sea. When the tide comes in, he's flooded, adrift near the ceiling with a decomposing corpse for a cellmate. Something of an artist, he paints mock Constables for his turnkey and creates his own Book of Fish (just like the one in our hands), a combination of fish paintings and personal history penned with a shark-bone quill and ink from various bodily humors and fish byproducts. Though convicted of sedition and murder, Gould isn't much of a criminal, more a winning virtuoso of self-deprecation and defeat. As an artist, he relishes an anti-sublime, favoring those "vile details of slime & scale & filth" that best characterize his surroundings. Here are, for instance, his fellow convicts: "filthy little clawscrunts & half-starved wretches, their pus-filled eyes poking like buttercups out of scaled scabby faces, their misshapen backs hacked & harrowed out of any natural form by endless applications of the Lash…"
Such exuberance of language (among Gould's vocabulary are "deadflog", "blowsabella," and "mollynogging") runs throughout the novel, a pastiche that rings of Melville, Dickens, and Swift (and finally, of Ovid). The gothic assembly of characters features a fearsome, syphilitic Commandant, addicted to laudanum, addled by visions of a New Europe in Tasmania. Also, there's a bloated surgeon inmate named Tobias Achilles Lempriere who meets a harrowing end, plus ex-slave Capois Death and concubine Twopenny Sal.
Extreme inventions like these beg belief -- which is, finally, the point. For we're in the hands of a liar and a cheat, and Gould's story is filled with reminders that the ground is not solid, the facts not to be trusted, the characters not firmly themselves. This is both a historical adventure and a novel of ideas, of the instability of history and identity, of metamorphosis and reincarnation. Toward the end, a few developments do seem a little too cutesy-postmodern, too through-the-looking-glass—too fishy, if you will. But this is a unique, unclassifiable novel, and if some of Flanagan's tricks come off as inappropriately cerebral for a work of such fabulous grotesquerie, then at least Gould's Book of Fish never loses its briny energy, its wonderful stamp of weird.
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